It was the third streak of light he’d seen that night. Those mysterious glimpses of blurred motion arching across the night sky. Lying on either side of him at their summer camp, his father and uncle were deep in their own dreams, but Nimki found the sky to be a much more interesting companion. Although he was only fourteen summers old, he felt like those distant beacons dangling far above him were ancient friends. Even though he was familiar with every pattern and configuration hanging above the trees, Nimki knew precious little else about the stars, just the stories the elders told him. They were lights from the campfires of hunters and fishermen in the next world. Perhaps one of those campfires belonged to his grandfather, who had left his body and this world two winters past. Since then, occasionally Nimki would pick a star randomly and imagine his grandfather huddled over it, licking his lips in anticipation, a fat sky grouse slowly cooking over its flames.

Next to him, his sleeping uncle rolled over onto his side with a grunt. They’d left the village three days ago in search of deer or moose, or anything sizable to feed the village. Summer was supposed to be a time of plenty, but the wildlife didn’t seem to know that. Other than the odd raccoon and rabbit, the three mighty Anishinabe hunters had nothing to show for their time in the bush. Nimki’s father was getting frustrated. The boy could tell because he was beginning to talk in monosyllables… a dangerous sign. His mother, back in the village, was pregnant and needed good, hearty food to produce a healthy baby. Nimki’s father usually fulfilled one of the requirements of manhood by supplying the family and village with tangible supplies but this summer was proving to be a more difficult endeavour. The Creator was making them search long and hard for meat.

Once again, his uncle shifted in his sleep, trying to find a more comfortable position. This was probably the last summer his uncle would be in the village. After many years of searching, he had finally found an excellent woman willing to be his wife. But she lived in another village, several weeks’ travel to the east. When the summer ended, he would leave his family… and Nimki… and join this new wife and her community. It was difficult to say whether Nimki or his father would ever see him again. This eventuality was making Nimki’s father even more moody. So far on this trip, they had managed to avoid the uncomfortable, looming topic.

He was a good uncle, Nimki thought. It was he more than his father who had taught Nimki the proper way to make a bow and how to shoot it. His father always seemed too busy with Nimki’s two brothers and his sister, or doing his duties for the village. Nimki’s still-childless uncle, however, seemed to have all the time in the world and Nimki revelled in it. Fortunately, patience was one of his uncle’s virtues, for Nimki was not so adept with a bow. Although he spent hours practising, the arrows never seemed to go where he wanted them to. Another point of frustration for the boy’s father.

In another time and another place, knowledgeable people would be able to tell that Nimki had been born without a lens in his right eye, severely limiting his depth perception, a requirement for aiming and shooting arrows. Right now and right here, the boy merely thought he was a bad hunter. But what he lacked in ability, he made up for in determination and drive. He was fast becoming one of the best trackers in the village. You didn’t need depth perception for that. Usually, it took years of training and experience to track an animal the way Nimki could. He was even better than his uncle and his father. Yet another twinge of embarrassment for his father. But it is difficult to track animals that aren’t there. Regardless, that is how all three came to be here, sleeping under the canopy of stars. Except the boy was not sleeping.

Sometimes, Nimki noticed, those fires in the sky seemed to shimmer, almost flicker, the way torches sometimes do when reflected off a wavy pond or lake. And they also seemed to be of slightly different colours and sizes. Some of his ancestors must have bonfires and others just small campfires. What else could that mean?

Other times, staring up into the speckled darkness, he felt if he wished hard enough or maybe opened his mind just right, his body might lift and travel up and up, eventually disappearing amid those shimmering lights. What would he find, he wondered. Such silly thoughts, but still, why was the night sky so much more interesting than the day sky? During the day it was always blue, though occasionally masked by clouds. The sun was there with monotonous regularity, and occasionally the moon would emerge on the opposite side, with bits of it missing. There were all sorts of stories to explain all that existed above and around him. But for Nimki, nighttime was so much more interesting—yes, it was easier to see and do things in the light, but in the absence of the sun, the world above became a more fascinating place.

Pondering such thoughts as he lay nestled on a bed of moss and pine needles, Nimki continued to stare up into the darkness. It was late in the summer, so there were few mosquitos to trouble him. Sometimes his eyes would fixate on an individual beacon of brightness in the dark canopy of the sky. Other times he would unfocus his eyes as best he could and let the whole panorama flood his consciousness. On occasion, he would also wonder, could his grandfather or those other hunters way up there see his campfire? Did they wonder about him and his little fire? Such silly questions.

His family often wondered why he was always tired. It seemed to them that he was only well rested in winter, when the boy’s people moved into the warm wigwams, or when it was cloudy and rainy for days. Nimki had difficulty explaining his interest in the night sky. He had tried once to tell his best friend, Keesic, who just shrugged, uninterested in such ideas.

Suddenly, his eyes caught another flash of light streaking through the mottled blackness. A flaming arrow perhaps, from the world above? A falling torch that burned out before it landed on Turtle Island, maybe? He wished he knew.

Tomorrow, he and the two older men would continue the hunt, and it might be a better day. Just before they’d stopped for the night, they’d discovered some deer droppings. They were a few days old, but it was still a good sign.

Tomorrow night, the sun would set and the moon would rise, as it had ever since he and the elders could remember. With it, the stars would come out again, the same, or maybe slightly different. Some moved occasionally. The sky was a very mysterious place. Nimki wasn’t so mysterious. He just loved watching the stars through the trees overhead.

And sometimes, he felt the stars were watching him.

The sound of the door slamming was still echoing across the bay, reminding Walter how far sound can travel over water. He marched across the lawn—the grass was indeed in need of cutting, as his father had yelled at him repeatedly that night, spitting droplets of beer. His mother, not really paying attention, had changed the channel on the television and turned up the volume. As usual, neither his father nor his mother rushed out the door after him to stall his angry exit, or comfort him and beg him to come back into the house. Other parents, he knew, would have followed such an angry and upset boy out of the house and through the yard, eager to cajole him into returning home with them, maybe held him the way he’d seen other parents do. Possibly even make him some hot chocolate or let him watch what he wanted on television.

Instead, the door and the screen door remained shut. As with much of his life, Walter was alone. He had nowhere to go. He couldn’t go to his friend Todd’s place. It would be too embarrassing to tell him his parents were drunk and yelling once more. His grandparents were certainly not within walking distance. His options were limited.

So as usual, he found himself at the mound. Sometime in years past, during a construction boom on the reserve, somebody had dumped a sizable pile of earth in a small glen at the edge of their property. A lilac bush hid it from the house. The mound rose about eight feet or so from the ground, the base partially covered by an abundance of weeds. Over the years, the elements, and Walter’s body, had flattened the top down to the point where a teenage boy could lie on it.

Even before the boy started climbing up the side, he was breathing heavily. Walter kept telling himself that he wasn’t going to cry. Not this time. Not again. Each footstep coming down on the packed earth was another stomp holding down his emotions. With a thump, he sat down at the crest of the hill. It was a dark night, and in the distance he could hear scattered dogs barking. Luckily it hadn’t rained in more than a week, so the mound was merely dusty, not muddy. Walter brought his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them, peering out at his sad kingdom: the lilac bush with his parents’ house behind it, a disintegrating Chrysler LeBaron parked near the treeline for parts, a school desk for a little kid that had somehow made its way onto this part of the property. Not much of a kingdom. Still, he tried to tell himself, it was better than some had.

Lying back, he took another deep breath. It was Sunday night, and another week of school would begin tomorrow. Only a few hours earlier, Walter had been at church, once again at his mother’s command. She’d already given up on her husband, convinced the man was going to hell, but she was determined not to lose her son to ways not of the church. She was going to make sure her progeny knew the power and glory of the Lord, no matter what. The fact that during the rest of the week she paid no mind to the lessons of the Gospel was of little importance to the woman. Sunday night in the pews was her get-out-of-jail-free card. She was probably drunk by now. The darker it got, the higher his parents’ blood alcohol level. As reliable as the sun rising.

Unlike many kids, Walter looked forward to school. It got him out of here—for a few hours, anyway. The reserve was a small universe with few places to hide. Tomorrow, science class was first thing in the morning and they were studying astronomy. He liked that class. It provided fun and interesting facts. Anything fun and interesting was a bonus for him. More importantly, the class supplied a much-needed distraction. It was fodder for his imagination. A lot of the other students were bored by the math and science of the topic, but not Walter. He loved the possibilities taught in that class. Just last week, their teacher, Mr. Hughes, had told them about the recent rush to discover habitable planets in the galaxy and how scientists would find them. Evidently, there were two ways to ascertain the existence of hospitable planets: by measuring the wobble of the stars resulting from the gravity of a planet yanking on them, or the minute, almost minuscule dimming of the stars’ light as a planet orbits between its sun and Earth. Some of the language used was beyond the boy, but still, Walter found it… cool.

Mr. Hughes had spent half of last class talking about Kepler-186f. It was a planet located in the Cygnus constellation, about 490 light-years away. Very far as the crow flies but in space terms just a couple blocks away. It was one of the first planets to be discovered with an orbital radius similar to Earth’s in the habitable zone of another star. According to experts, it was located in what was called the Goldilocks Zone, a reference to Goldilocks and the three bears. Too close to the sun: hot and unlivable. Too far away: cold and unlivable. It was just the right distance away, in this case, in the orbit of a small red dwarf. It was the first of many such discoveries in the last few years.

Walter could hear another dog barking, this time on the other side of the reserve. It sounded like one of his Uncle Dick’s hounds. He hoped it wouldn’t be at it all night. Studying the sky, he managed to find Cygnus. He had learned that much in class. Somewhere in that group of stars sat Kepler-186f. His teacher had said there was still a lot more to learn about the planet, but the fact that it might be Earth-like, and support life, was just amazing. Were there boys there, discontent or otherwise? Did they have the same dreams and problems as the ones here on Earth did?

Walter sighed. He hoped life there—if it did exist—was a little more interesting, and happier, than life down here. Lying there on the mound of dirt, he closed his eyes and wished he could send his spirit up into the heavens.

Eric hated the thump thump thump of the atmospherics. They were so loud and the vibrations rattled across the whole settlement, all four square kilometres of it. No matter where you were in the huge octagonal enclosure, you could always feel the repetitive shudder as the atmospherics converted the indigenous atmosphere into oxygen. Most citizens had grown used to it and barely noticed the rumbling anymore, but for some reason Eric could feel every single tremor every single time. Lying in bed, he could count the seconds between each successive boom—usually four and a half—and then the next one would sound.

His bunk, inserted ergonomically into the wall at the back of his father’s locale (the new Keplerspeak for “apartment”). While functional in the optimal usage of apartment space, it barely gave him room to turn over in frustration. Tonight, like most nights, sleep was eluding him, chased away by the constant heartbeat of Plymroc. The name, with its connections to Old Earth, was a contraction of Plymouth Rock, a symbolic name for this new and daring settlement on a foreign planet.

Feeling exasperated by his sensitivity, Eric rose and put on his jumpsuit. It looked like it would be another night of wandering the hallways and labs of Plymroc until he tired himself out and forced his body to sleep. He thought this even though he knew exactly where he was going. He went there every night he couldn’t sleep. One of the technicians had even given him the security code, remarking that Eric almost spent more time there than he did.

As expected, twenty Kepler minutes later, Eric showed up at the Astronosphere. He considered this place the doorway to the galaxy. Inside its walls, the young man could access all aspects of the galaxy in a few minutes, though that was a misnomer. Time was a tricky concept in the world of astronomy. Light-years were not a measurement of time but of distance. And in the four or five minutes it would take him to load the computers and access any one of the numerous technological arrays that scanned the heavens, the information he would be looking at would be hours, weeks, years, more than likely millenniums old. But the important thing was he could look at them now, regardless of when the visible light or gamma rays or X-rays had begun their journey across the universe.

Eric’s father, like many people in the settlement, had several responsibilities. He worked in hydroponics as well as metallurgical structuring. The founders of Plymroc felt that focusing on one field of expertise for the rest of your life, so far away from most Earth-like diversions, could create psychological problems. So most Keplerites juggled two professions to keep the mind active. This way, each individual could flex different parts of their cognizance.

His father had never noticed Eric’s midnight absences. He was always too busy or too tired. Although it was twenty-two years old, the settlement of Plymroc was far from complete. It was a never-ending construction site, with priority given to such necessities as atmospherics upgrades and water purification. Right now, the list on the original Schedule of Priorities drawn up on landing was only two-thirds finished. It was estimated another twelve to fourteen years were needed before the framework of the settlement would be finalized. It would be that long before his father and many of the other colonists would be released from their twelve-hour workdays. Eric’s mother had died not long after he was born, what with the med centre being less of a priority than the atmospherics and biofood domes.

As he had expected, the Astronosphere was empty. In an attempt to mimic Earth as much as possible, Plymroc founders kept the normal terrestrial manifestations of time on Kepler-186f. The rotation of the planet was only fifty-six minutes longer, so it didn’t take much of an effort to adapt it. Plymroc was on night shift now, so he had the lab to himself, as usual.

The Astronosphere was one of the few locations in the settlement specially shielded against the pervasive pulsations of the atmospherics. Because of the delicate nature of the equipment it contained, the room had been precisely designed to act as a buffer against man- and Kepler-made vibrations—the planet had a unique hum because of pulsations emanating from its highly crystalline core. For that reason, Eric had found great peace in the Cosmicon, short for Cosmic Consciousness. The Cosmicon was a small room within the Astronosphere with digital readouts and input monitors scattered in all six directions. If you manipulated things correctly—which Eric was very adept at—you could almost make it look like you were deep in space, alone and floating, surrounded by everything the Big Bang had spit out. Making himself comfortable in the Cosmicon, Eric booted the familiar program and adjusted the levels.

For about seven months now, since he had learned and decoded the programming behind the Cosmicon, he’d been able to shut out the outside world and manoeuvre himself through the far reaches of space. Floating below him in the inkiness was the Crab Nebula; dangling overhead was the distorted Orion’s Belt. To his right, the twin suns of Sirius. To his left, a magnification of the massive black hole at the centre of the galaxy. And directly ahead, a strange, far-off place called Earth.

Of course, Eric had never been there. He’d been born several years after Plymroc was founded, but he’d heard the stories of the Origin. The elders of the community even jokingly referred to their exodus as “the Origin Express.” Few now got the joke. Eric had visited the archival web, as well as taken the yearly courses in school. Every resident had studied Earth’s history, composition, location and people in school, and he had studied far more by himself, in here, alone. Although the planet was far and remote, he held it close and personal. He sure wished he could see an elephant in the flesh, but that was most definitely unlikely to happen.

It was the SATD that got the first settlers here—Space Altering Thrust Drive. It altered the fabric of space, allowing transit in a remarkably short time—though, again, time is relative. It took 490 years for light from Earth’s yellow sun to reach Kepler, and it would have taken double, triple, quadruple that amount of time for a spaceship to traverse that distance by conventional means. The SATD took only twenty years, the problem being it was a one-way trip. The drive burns itself out. The citizens of Plymroc could try to build another one to return with, but why? They would travel for twenty years to settle this planet, only to spend five years and much of their limited resources building a new SATD, then travel for another twenty years to return to Earth. Not much point in all that.

Eric knew every nuance and shade of that far-off blue planet. Kepler-186f had more of a dull greenish-grey tinge to it, unlike Earth’s fabulous bright cerulean. It was unlikely he would ever set foot on Earth, but there was no harm in visiting it with his eyes or mind.

The image in front of him had taken 490 years to reach Kepler-186f. Again, in galactic terms, that wasn’t very long. The Earth he was looking at was very different from the Earth he knew was there now. It was like looking into a time machine. When the sun’s light had bounced off the planet’s surface and begun its journey across the cosmos to this hidden part of the galaxy, the human race had not even flown in planes yet. It was just a hundred or so years after somebody named Columbus had sailed across what had been thought of as an impenetrable ocean, navigating by the stars, and landed on a continent populated by people who no doubt had their own ideas about the stars and planets far above them.

Once Columbus had landed, colonies had spread, and eventually people from those same colonies had crossed what they thought was an even more difficult and impenetrable terrain—the vastness of space.

Maybe right now, looking up at him from somewhere down on that faraway planet, was another young man just like him, looking up at the heavens, stargazing.

Wouldn’t that be something, Eric thought.